The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
My random historical spree kicked off with perhaps the most famous of them all. Eco’s heady and intense novel of a chain of murders at Melk Abbey. Rather self-indulgent at times, but I’ve been accused of worse myself. Blistering use of semiotics, theological studies, and the general state of the Catholic church circa 1327. In fact, though I know little of those times, Eco offered some gentle learning throughout, with a some good old-fashioned blood-and-guts killings to boot. Far too clever for its own good.
Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom
Continuing the monk-action was C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. A much lighter read after the Eco, this follows a hunchback lawyer into the inner sanctum of a monastery in southern England, around the time of the Dissolution, when Henry 8 was looking for an unusual solution to a break-up. Sticks to the modern crime formula, with enough of a mystery to keep that page turning. Elegant prose, very good lead character with lots of depth, lots of dodgy monks, a good slice of history – what more can you want? I’ll definitely pick up the rest of the series.
Q, by Luther Blissett
No, not the footballer, but the Italian intellectual and anarchistic collective, Luther Blissett. Fucking amazing book. Slaps down any novel you wish to give the moniker ‘gritty’. This is a full on, turn up the volume, medieval (well, early modern) gore-fest, all in the shape of one of the greatest socialist upheavals, that of the Reformation. It follows an anonymous figure through the turbulent times, the Münster Rebellion, the Battle of Frankenhausen etc., all the time being tracked / screwed over by Q, a Catholic spy. Puts a heavy socialist slant on things. Contemporary and stylish prose, which I know will piss off those hoping for authentic ye olde speak, but they can get over themselves. It jumps back and forward through time, uses extracts of letters, very jazzy structure. This is politics and sex on a grand scale, but don’t read if you’re a Tory.
Future reads: The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier, 54 by Wu Ming.
The Eco book is a monster. I read it years ago and I was halfway through before realising that he’s basically taking the extreme piss out of the reader because of the literary pretensions of his followers. It was all confirmed a couple of years later when I saw an interview with him and he admitted as much.
A recc for you, if you’re on a historical tip: The Book of Splendour by Frances Sherwood. Golem-building Jewish ghetto-dwellers take on the status quo in medieval Prague. Fab.
Rob: that wouldn’t surprise me. Still, all that jazz aside, a very good read.
Marco: that looks extremely interesting. I’ll add it to my next Amazon splurge.
Erm. In what possible sense was the Reformation socialist?
Don, thanks for dropping by. You’d probably have to have read the book to understand the irony of my phrasing – this was what made Q quite the scandal in Europe, it’s reading of the protestant reformation as allegory for post-industrial socialist uprisings. Do a little research on the book and get back to me if you need anything clarifying.
Did Eco have any followers back when The Name Of The Rose was published? It was his first novel. I thought it was extremely readable, particularly given that it was written by a professor of semiotics! Unfortunately it was an experience that was never matched as although it is a straightforward literary thriller everything afterwards is increasingly knotted (and I’m not convinced the English translations are that good). So I’ve given up on him now but, man, The Name Of The Rose is a great book.
A didn’t really get on with The Brief History of the Dead. There are brilliant bits I didn’t think it worked as a whole.
Good point. Perhaps it’s the academic circles who he was trying to have fun with? Rob – I don’t suppose you know of a link to this, do you?
I’ve only a mild interest in exploring more Eco at the moment – though from what you say I might put it off a bit longer. I enjoyed TNOTR very much though. I love the way Eco convinces the reader that they can follow such complex histories by hammering them with detail. It kind of works.